Why Frederick Douglass's struggle for justice is relevant in the Trump eraRoundup
tags: Frederick Douglass, Trump
A month after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday in 1865, the 17th president of the United States began announcing his plans to reconstruct a divided nation. The new president, Andrew Johnson, cast the four-year civil war that stole nearly one million lives as a temporary family squabble. With the war over, Johnson granted the restoration of land, rights and amnesty to the ideological ancestors of those Americans who today oppose land, rights and amnesty for undocumented immigrants. He granted nothing – no land, no civil or voting rights – to the freed people who did not break the law of treason like Confederates, whose resistance on plantations and battlefields were decisive in the Union victory.
Frederick Douglass was horrorstruck. He would end up living 77 long years of struggle against the terror of slavery and Jim Crow, from February 1818 to 1895. But the months immediately after Johnson was catapulted into the presidency may have been the most terrifying of all. Unlike the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and Jim Crow, Douglass never saw the pro-Confederate Johnson coming, kind of like how hardly anyone saw a President Donald Trump coming. This year, people across the United States and the world are celebrating the Douglass bicentennial, the year he would have turned 200 years old. It is appropriate that Douglass’s bicentennial falls squarely in the Trump era. The spirit of history has a way of constantly returning to the present when we need her.
Trump would probably remind Douglass of Andrew Johnson. Johnson and Trump represent the same force of racist progress; the same force destined for lists of the worst US presidents of all time; the same force of white male nationalism, of racial walls, of bullying opposition to expanding the citizenry and the vote, of bitter fights with Congress, all stemming from their largely pro-Confederate base.
Last fall, when I realized the Douglass bicentennial stood around the corner alongside a Trump presidency, I could not help but wish for a Frederick Douglass. His “philosophy of reform” was based on history that shows human progress has “been born of earnest struggle”, as he said in a captivating speech in 1857 that nearly rivals his best, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” “If there is no struggle there is no progress,” he orated. “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning.”
I soul searched in the winds for the body of Douglass to reappear in time for this bicentennial, in time to struggle against the legacy of Andrew Johnson. I stopped after I recalled something Douglass said in “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”, an idea that has guided my work as a historian. “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future,” he said. ...
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